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Restored Theatre a Source of Unity, Pride in Roanoke

In my first few weeks in Roanoke, residents asked me over and over again whether I had seen their newly restored theatre downtown. I was impressed by the pride that many citizens seemed to have in the theatre and excited to see the building that so many seemed to view as a symbol of the town’s future.

Theatres have long been an integral part of Roanoke’s cultural history. In 1906, the city’s theatre was home to opera concerts.  By 1944, Roanoke boasted four theatres: the Martin, the Ritz, the Star, and the Auditorium. Built in 1941 in the heart of downtown, the Martin Theatre was by far the most popular.

The Martin was always a fixture in town, but it took on special significance during the Christmas season when it played Christmas carols over the loudspeakers to help everyone get into the spirit. Children could visit a Santa Claus in the lobby to confide their Christmas wishes.

Then in the summer of 1980, a lightning storm struck the building, and the resulting fire burned the theatre to the ground. The building lay dormant until 2011 when the restoration project began in earnest at the behest of the Roanoke Rotary Club.

Vickie Cummings, a longtime member of the Roanoke Rotary Club and its most recent president, recalled the club’s efforts to begin the project.  “The theater is such a local landmark in our town, and not saving it seemed like the wrong thing to do. But from the early planning stages, it was really important to us to maintain the integrity and the history of the building while still providing a venue that could be of use to the community.”

From the beginning, she said, the Roanoke Rotary Club was highly involved in the process. “The project to revitalize the building was sort of driven from Rotary, and it initially was the brainchild of Bruce Brownlee, David Denton, and Kesa Dunn. Since 2001, the property had been owned by Bob and Mary Schoenberner, and they weren’t sure what to make of the revitalization plans. After we showed them our drafted plans, they kindly gave their blessing, and the property was entrusted to the Rotary Club,” Cummings said.

Once the club secured the building, it sought to secure community support, which Cummings says was essential to the project’s success. “Really, everybody bought in to the idea of revitalizing the theatre, and that made all the difference,” she said.

This community support was evident in the successes of the revitalization project. Rotary kicked off its fundraising campaign in March 2014 and had raised $300,000 within a year. “I think everyone was pretty clear about what we wanted and how we would achieve it, but I think our successes, and how quickly they were achieved, even surprised Rotary. Everyone pitched in— big and small,” Cummings said.

Families, businesses, churches, and private citizens all donated, Cummings recalled, and she said that each contribution, whether from businesses like Gersons’ Restaurant or the Quality Beverage Store or from private citizens like the $2 sent in by a local school child, helped them reach their goal.

Roanoke’s success with Martin Theatre inspired other communities as well. Woodland, one of the other four communities in Randolph County, started its own theatre revitalization project and has reached out to the Roanoke Rotary Club for advice and support. Several other communities have asked about their restoration plans and processes, especially about their revitalized marquee.

Cummings said that the Rotary Club was happy to help these communities. When asked about the advice she passed on to them, she said, “I would encourage them to go for it. I really believe that if you can believe it, if you want it and you know that your project is good and right, if you’re willing to roll up your sleeves and work for it, if you gain collaborators and have these relationships, I believe you can make it happen. Just work at it a little bit at a time. If you get your community to buy into it and commit to working hard to show that their trust was worth it, some amazing things can happen.”

Cummings said that the strong community orientation of the project served to help unify Roanoke. “The theatre revitalization brings a sense of unity to the community that nothing else can. Politics can separate people, business can separate people, but trying to make a better world for the next generations brings everyone together.”